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Review: ‘Million Dollar Arm’ is a formulaic and uninspired Disney sports movie

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Million Dollar Arm

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Before seeing Million Dollar Arm, the new feel-good Disney sports movie, someone described the film on Twitter as Jerry Maguire meets Slumdog Millionaire. Now usually, these broad descriptions of a film as a mix between movie-A-meets-movie-B are fairly obvious and superficial, but I must admit, this particular one is pretty on the nose.

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Unfortunately, Million Dollar Arm is not nearly as energetic or emotionally involving as either of the two films used to describe it. But it tries to be, unsuccessfully, and ultimately, comes across as a limp version of the same rags-to-riches/overcoming-all-odds sports story that audiences have seen hundreds of times.

Million Dollar Arm follows JB, a down-on-his-luck sports agent, who stages an unconventional recruitment contest to give talented Indian cricket players a chance to play Major League Baseball.

The normally charming Jon Hamm plays the Jerry Maguire-like agent in-crisis, struggling not only professionally, but emotionally – though he does so with considerably less charm than Cruise, or even everyday Jon Hamm. In fact, he is kind of a jerk, though because this is a feel-good movie, he will, of course, learn a valuable lesson and quickly change everything about himself right before the big emotional ending. Until then, Hamm mostly coasts through the film and is never really given much to do other than get frustrated at his predicament.

And that is the problem of the whole film, not just Hamm’s stock character – but that it is all so formulaic, safe, and uninspired. But to be honest, with a film like this, some of that is even expected to a degree. A film can be soft and predictable, yet still fun. But Million Dollar Arm is not one of those movies. It is lifeless everywhere else too, relying too much on fish-out-of-water comedy (which gets repetitively stale quickly), a shoe-horned romance, and forced drama.

Half of the film takes place in Los Angeles and the other half is spread throughout India – from noisy, over-crowded cities to small, middle of nowhere villages. JB, the smooth talking agent with a sports car and a strict schedule, is out of his element in India, but not nearly as much as the three Indian boys (two players and an interpreter) he brings back to America with newly planted dreams of riches and national pride. In typical fashion, India is shown as a beautiful and exotic place, but is also, more often than not, the butt of a joke. It is not that much of the film’s humor is racist necessarily, but rather misguided and incessant. There are only so many times you can make the same joke.

Despite its marketing and apparent premise, the film does not even qualify as a sports movie. There is very little actual baseball played in the too long, two-plus hour runtime. A few pitches here and there – most of which are clustered together in quick montages – but no actual games are played (hence the previously mentioned forced drama must be created). The players stretch and go through a lot drills, but mostly they talk. Which, again, is not a problem in and of itself, but because the film has little else to fall back on, it is more glaring. This is a movie about a pitching contest, not baseball.

Though they play two plucked-from-obscurity athletes, both Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal are recognizable faces in Hollywood. Though this is only his second film, Sharma played the lead in 2012’s Life of Pi while Mittal played one of the main characters in the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Both are proven more than capable actors, but their characters are very much secondary to Hamm’s lead. There is a lack of real investment in the Indian characters. Clearly, this is JB’s story, not theirs - no matter how globally appealing Disney is trying to seem.

The rest of the cast is rounded out by The Daily Show correspondent, Aasif Mandvi, as JB’s put upon business partner; Indian actor Pitobash, as the comic relief; Alan Arkin in a brief, but satisfying role as a retired baseball scout; Lake Bell as JB’s tenant/eventual girlfriend/voice of reason; and Bill Paxton in a very minor, but spot-on role as a college pitching coach.

Million Dollar Arm is not terrible, but rather dull and just more of the same. Story and quality-wise, it is pretty much what you would expect from Disney’s latest near-annual, declining-in-quality, based-on-true-events sports movies (Remember the Titans, The Rookie, Miracle, Invincible, Glory Road, Secretariat).

* * out of 5 stars

Million Dollar Arm opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, May 16 and locally at The Theatres at Canal Place, Chalmette Movies, The Grand 14 at Esplanade, and all three AMC Palace theaters (Elmwood 20, Westbank 16, and Clearview 12).

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